Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Little Islands, Little Creatures, Little Hills

The small, teardrop-shaped island of Bohol lies a little off the eastern coast of Cebu. It's one of the main beach and diving destinations in the Visayas. But I wasn't there for the beaches. Instead it was a cute little creature that lured me over. The Philippine tarsier is one of the world's smallest primates and looks like Gizmo's long lost brother. Its big, owl-like eyes and general cuteness make it a favourite of the tourists who flock to come and have their pictures taken with the little fuzzballs. Unfortunately for the shy tarsiers captivity and constant petting stresses them out big time and very few kept for public display live for more than a year. Despite the desire to pet one I knew better and visited the official tarsier sanctuary that works to protect them and satisfied myself with a few zoom shots of a couple of tarsiers dozing in the trees. It's often the way with wildlife tourism that the act of visiting a site and interacting with the animals is detrimental to their well-being. It's usually better to curb the urge to pet and get too close and content yourself with a fleeting glimpse and the knowledge that the animals are there, alive, thriving and living the way that they were meant to.

The nocturnal tarsiers have suffered greatly due to habitat loss and the mistaken belief amongst local tribes that they were evil creatures that ate their crops (they prey solely on insects). Nowadays habitat loss is still a big threat as is the demand for tarsiers as pets or display animals.

As well as being home to the iconic tarsier, Bohol is also the location of another of the Philippines' prime tourist attractions. In the islands interior is a bizarre landscape of identical, perfectly bowl-shaped hills that stretch off into the horizon. These are the Chocolate Hills; named so for their brown colour during the dry season when the vegetation desiccates in the summer heat. (I find it therefore odd that every brochure photograph of the hills - and there are plenty of those - shows them in their lush green splendour.) Though to be honest, how it makes the top list of attractions in the Philippines is a little baffling. The landscape is indeed intriguing, but there's little to do: you drive up to the parking lot (or, if you're counting your pesos, you get dropped off at the junction and walk the 1km to the parking lot, eliciting looks of amazement from locals that you are walking such a long distance without the need for a motorbike or even a guide to show you the way), walk up some steps to the viewpoint, take a few pictures ... and head back again. There's nothing to do. I had asked at the tourist office in the main town whether there were walking trails and he told me that there were, and to ask at the hills once I got there. But the people there just looked bewildered by my questions and couldn't quite grasp the concept of actually walking amongst the hills. [In many developing countries the concept of walking for pleasure is alien - walking is for the poor and if you have money you take some form of public transport or, if you can afford it, a taxi or your own car.]

The strange, otherworldly landscape of the Chocolate Hills. Go have a look, take your photo, and then leave.

Across the Bohol Sea lies Camiguin, a little island just off the coast of Mindanao. Camiguin is famous locally for its sweet lanzones fruits (unfortunately the season is in October) and its volcanoes. In a country that has its fair share of them, sitting as it does on the Pacific Rim of Fire, Camiguin is the undisputed King of Cones with four of them, one for every 60km2 . The most recent to erupt, in 1953, was the wonderfully named mount Hibok-Hibok. And at only 1300m it's  a very accessible volcano, easily climbed in a day. So off I went with my pack, my camera, my water and my guide. The problem though with climbing mountains in the tropics though is the over-eager vegetation hinders panoramic views; instead thorny rattan vines cling viciously to your clothes and scratch your legs whilst creeping lianas try to surreptitiously trip you up. But at least the peak offered some glimpses of the caldera with its boggy marsh and the coast below through breaks in the cloud. One advantage though of hiking in volcanic areas is the profusion of thermal springs in which you can soak at the end of a sweaty slog up and down (just remember to wear dark boxer shorts if you don't have a pair of swimming trunks).

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